I owe a lot to Leonard Cohen. His work has given me a window into faith and humanity that inspired me from the first time I heard it. Some people might say the view from that window is a pretty bleak one. I don’t see it that way. In Cohen, I see a lot of truth that fits a Reformed perspective, even though it comes from a very different place.
Like a lot of people, I first read Leonard Cohen when I was in undergrad. But unlike the other poets I was introduced to in my teens and 20s – T.S. Eliot, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Frost – I kept on reading Leonard Cohen as the years went by. It seemed to me that as I got older, there was always some new layer of Cohen’s work that I hadn’t understood before. It was like Cohen’s poetry grew up with me – and as he got older, his new work matured as well. And just like we look back at our own lives and see patterns and foreshadowing in retrospect, as I have gotten older I’ve seen ripples and eddies in his work that I now see flowing towards something much bigger.
Leonard Cohen was born in Montreal in the 1930s. His dad was a World War I veteran who owned a clothing store and suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He died when Cohen was just nine. His mom was the daughter of a writer and Jewish scholar who loved the arts, and music in particular. He began to write poetry at McGill in the 1950s, and turned to song writing in the 1960s when he was over 30 – past the age that hippies of the time said anyone could be trusted.
The 50s and 60s spawned some of Cohen’s best-known poems and songs. This was the era of “Suzanne Takes you Down,” “So Long, Marianne,” “Bird on a Wire” and “Sisters of Mercy.” Most people, if they know Cohen’s work at all, know him from this period. This was the era of Leonard Cohen striking a pose as the longing and depressed romantic, the would-be ladies’ man lurking in dark corners of a seedy pub, waiting for an opportunity to speak to someone but more likely to spend the night brooding and walking home alone in the rain.
Verses such as “like a bird on a wire/ like a drunk in a midnight choir/ I have tried in my way to be free,” capture, for a lot of people, the chaos and heartbreak of their early 20s. The tension we feel to be free and loved at the same time, and between freedom and wanting to fit in. For a certain kind of person – drawn to post-adolescent melancholy and introspection – this is the entry-point into Leonard Cohen. And as you get older – when you look back at how those early poems made you feel – it feels like looking at your high-school yearbook photo. The poems are introspective to the point of narcissism. And when sung – especially by Cohen himself – they’re downright depressing. Personally, I prefer covers of his songs – especially the early ones. Cohen’s voice is something I can only take in small doses, like a vaccination against happiness.
Fortunately, Cohen didn’t stay in that mode for too long. By the early 80s, Cohen was exploring more spiritual themes – both in his life and in his writing. It’s here where Cohen starts to get really interesting – his observations about life are no longer from the perspective of the young man on the prowl, but an older and wiser man who is starting to lift his eyes upward.
Cohen grew up as a serious student of Jewish mysticism, so it’s not surprising that his poetry draws from the kabbalah and the history of Judaism. It’s always been there in his writing, but you see a steady progression as Cohen goes from dabbling around the edges of faith to plunging into the heart of it.
It wasn’t just his faith he was exploring. Cohen was also trying to find a role to play within the grand narrative of Jewish history itself. In the early 1970s, Cohen travelled to Israel to enlist in the army and fight in the Yom Kippur war. He was sidelined by officials who thought he’d be better used to entertain troops than to fight alongside of them. Turning back to song, he explored the tragedy and strength of his culture. His song “Dance me to the Edge of Love” was inspired by the story of violinists playing in Nazi death camps. His most famous song, “Hallelujah,” which is as close as you’ll find to a hymn in modern music, is infused with biblical imagery. Cohen sings “I heard there was a secret chord/ that David played and it pleased the Lord/ but you don’t really care for music do ya?” In one line, Cohen brings together the threads of his work – a longing for God, a love of music, the need to connect intimately with people.
Of all his spiritual observations, though, the one most often quoted after his death was a line from his 1992 song, Anthem.” He wrote: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” The notion that mankind is fallen, removed from God and that sin and brokenness itself points us to God comes from Jewish mysticism, but it’s also something that Christians can immediately connect with. Judging by how often that line was tweeted after he dies, it’s not just Christians or Jews who see its truth.
By the mid-1990s, Cohen took a bit of a spiritual detour. He spent a decade exploring Buddhism. In fact, he was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1996. However, he never renounced Judaism and continued to keep the Sabbath. He also professed a deep respect for Christianity and for the person of Christ.
In his last album, though, 82-year-old Cohen put religious syncretism aside and returned with a rumbling roar to his roots. The song “You Want it Darker” features a cantor and choir from his home synagogue. Cohen’s gruff, rumbling spoken-word poem sees him wrestling with the end of his life. Addressing God he says “If you are the dealer, let me out of the game/ If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame/ If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame/ You want it darker.” Behind him we hear his cantor, chanting “Hineni,” – or “I’m ready, my lord” – which is the word Abraham used when God called him to sacrifice Isaac. Cohen submits himself to judgement, to God in his final act as a musician and an artist. It is a powerful, beautiful, complex statement of faith.
Just like I look backwards and see Cohen’s earlier work differently now for having lived through my twenties and thirties, I feel like I only understand a part of his message to us as an artist in his 80s. And I feel tremendously blessed to have his work to look forward to in the years ahead as I follow in his footsteps. Though I don’t share his faith – or faiths plural, maybe – I feel as though Leonard Cohen and I have been on a similar journey for a long time, and I’m grateful for his guidance.